By Colette Davidson
When Spanish journalist Juan Diego Quesada worked for the international section of El Pais, he was prone to travelling to hostile environments once every three months. He has covered the war on drugs as well as ISIS’s occupation of Marawi in the Philippines, ISIS’s proclaimed caliphate in Mosul, Iraq, and drug cartels in Sinaloa, Mexico. Every time he comes home, Quesada makes sure to take time to decompress.
“Whenever I came back from covering conflicts, I had long talks with my editor-in-chief,” he says. “I had free days to rest and recover with my family. If I had suffered any kind of post-traumatic stress, I could count on the help of my newspaper.”
War, destruction, violent crime – journalists who cover conflict are systematically faced with traumatic situations. But unlike some professions, journalists are expected to remain neutral and objective in order to report the truth. Getting emotionally involved in a story is usually not an option.
And yet, covering conflict ultimately takes its toll and the effects of reporting on traumatic situations can last a lifetime. That’s why asking for help – during and after a difficult assignment – is so essential. It’s also why newsrooms must have resources on hand in order to ensure journalists’ mental health. While trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in journalism is becoming more well-known, more needs to be done to educate the journalism community.
“This is a new area but it’s growing,” says Elana Newman, a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa and Research Director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma – a resource center and project of the Colombia University Graduate School of Journalism. “There are enough resources available but not yet enough research.”
Calling PTSD by its name
Since 1980, PTSD has been officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder. While many associate it with those who have served in the military, PTSD can affect anyone who has witnessed a traumatic event – from abuse and rape to survivors of motor vehicle collisions.
Journalists have the unique role as outside observers – bearing witness to violent crime, warfare and natural disasters. But applying the term “PTSD” to what a journalist has experienced is still not recognized globally.
“We don’t have that culture, despite the fact that there are many Spanish journalists in places of conflict,” says Juan Diego Quesada. “I have read about PTSD in the Anglo-Saxon press but, in general, it is not something that we usually talk about.”
There’s a similar feeling in the Middle East, say observers, where years-long wars and conflict can affect the general population in such a way that there is less acknowledgement of what journalists go through.
“In this part of the world, there is not a lot of support or institutions to help,” says Jad Melki, associate professor of journalism and media studies at the Lebanese American University. “Many medical professionals here don’t take [PTSD] seriously.”
Yet Melki says that journalism and mental health is a common topic in his coursework. Whether it’s a class on print or broadcast journalism, the university teaches journalism students all aspects of trauma: how to deal with victims, how to not re-traumatize those already in a traumatic situation, and how to take care of themselves emotionally.
Oftentimes, it’s a matter of teaching journalists that they have the right to feel emotionally affected by a story.
“Journalists are the last to come to the table,” says psychologist Elana Newman. “They’re trained to not be part of the story and to be objective. But being objective has created more hurdles for people to recognize that they can be affected.”
Getting in the way of confronting the trauma journalists have seen is a culture that rewards those who report on conflict. Men are more often hired for conflict reporting than women, and prestige regularly comes with the territory – journalists often receive accolades or promotions after covering war or conflict.
“You go and write about people who are having a terrible time and sometimes you receive awards or book deals. Some of your colleagues see you as a hero,” says Juan Diego Quesada. “There’s no way to not feel a twinge of guilt [after returning home from conflict situations], unless you’re a sociopath.”
Experiencing feelings of guilt can only compound mental health issues for journalists who have witnessed trauma. This is especially true for foreign correspondents, who come and go from conflict without feeling the true impact of trauma on their daily lives. For local journalists, the challenge is two-fold: managing trauma on a professional level as well as a personal one.
Images are traumatic too
But trauma doesn’t only affect journalists out in the field. It can also greatly affect those working with gruesome or violent images and videos. At the University of Lebanon, Jad Melki teaches a class on how to handle traumatic imagery. He shows students gruesome images, and then discusses how those images have affected them to make sure that they are handled sensitively in the future.
“Some might feel angry or on-edge after seeing these images, and they don’t realize that it’s directly related to having seen them,” says Melki.
The Dart Center has created a guide dedicated to handling traumatic imagery as well as a standard operating procedure for newsrooms to follow. Newsrooms can practice self-care by allowing only a few staff members to access traumatic images and by taking steps to reduce their negative effects, such as steeling oneself before opening an image and taking breaks when necessary.
Whether it’s dealing with traumatic images or returning home from conflict reporting, newsrooms must equip themselves with resources in order to educate and protect journalists and their mental health.
But equally important is self-care – managing reactions to grief so that they don’t build up over time. That means engaging in activities to help keep oneself resilient and stronger – on par with protecting physical health – and seeking outside help when necessary. When they do so, journalists actually become more compassionate and are better able to do their jobs, says Newman.
“We need to think that if [journalists] listen to grief or they’re on the scene, they’re going to have reactions and those reactions need to be managed,” says Elana Newman. “Journalists need to [do that] without shame or stigma.”
Many journalists see and even experience some kind of trauma, whether they’re covering a conflict zone, protests or violent crime, and they can experience anxiety, depression or even PTSD. One of the best ways of coping is to talk about the experiences and the feelings they evoke, but few people do – journalists or their editors. Trauma is considered part of the job; but ignoring it only makes it worse. In this episode we look at moral injury, the kind of trauma journalists can experience, and the symptoms they might exhibit. And how to value their mental health as much their as physical safety. Listen
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma: https://dartcenter.org/
World Federation for Mental Health: https://wfmh.global/
ACOS Alliance: www.acosalliance.org
The Poynter Institute: https://www.poynter.org/